Tuesday, 4 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
With the agreement of the House I will share time with Deputies Ó Cuív and Brendan Smith. I, the Minister and our respective parties agree that this country and the Members of the Oireachtas owe a great debt of gratitude to the members of the Irish Defence Forces for their commitment to their country and to their jobs. Over the years they have faced down many threats internally within the State and externally across the world in pursuit of peace and security for the State. They continue to serve at home and abroad fearlessly. The Minister will visit the troops next week along with President McAleese. We wish the Minister well for that trip. The troops have brought and continue to bring great distinction to our country.
What we disagree on is the future organisation of those fine men and women and the impact potential changes may have on communities across the island. This is why we are here tonight. Along with my colleagues Deputies Brendan Smith and Robert Troy, Senator Diarmuid Wilson and Councillor Siobhán Ambrose — then mayor of Clonmel — I have sought since April information on proposed barracks closures. However, the standard reply from the Minister on every occasion here and in the other House is that no decision has been made. Yet, within the Army community and its higher levels, and within local communities like Cavan, Clonmel and Mullingar, there is a widely held belief that the barracks closure is imminent.
This belief is based on internal briefings from within the Army. It is based on comments by several Government Deputies, including comments such as “The gloves are off” and “I have no cause for optimism despite putting up a very strong case for the future of the barracks”. There was also a lengthy release from one Deputy outlining the options for Army members who are moved and indicating that while the physical barracks may close, it will be made available to community groups immediately on closure. So the words in the Government amendment that “condemns mischievous attempts to exaggerate the impact of these necessary decisions and create unnecessary fears among local communities” are relevant to the Government benches as much as any. This motion is about the 500 families that are being left in limbo by this lack of decision. This is why we have chosen to put this motion down this evening and offer the Government the chance to bring clarity once and for all.
The Government amendment congratulates the Government on taking “resolute action in facing the economic crisis” and yet it states further on that decisions relating to Estimates and the troika have been taken by the previous Government. It is those Estimates that the Minister is congratulating himself for implementing. That is indicative of the approach of the Government; on the one hand it blames us for everything from the economy to the rain but on the other it is happy to run around the world taking international plaudits. The Department of Defence is no different.
In Government we closed Army barracks and we did so in the face of strenuous and hostile opposition from the parties in Government. We are not hiding from this and it is mentioned in our motion. There is nothing “inconsistent” about the approach we are taking. We closed Army barracks because of the transformed security position on this island as a result of the peace process, a process in which every Member of these Houses has played a role. That process transformed not just the economic prospects of our island but its social chances. I often wonder if people forget the sacrifices made to get us to where we are today.
When we closed those barracks we ensured that €85 million of investment from the sale of those closed barracks was put back into the Army, ensuring that it is one of the most modern in Europe. I pay tribute to successive Ministers responsible for defence, including former Deputy Michael Smith, Deputy Willie O’Dea, former Deputy Tony Killeen and Deputy Ó Cuív. They ensured the policy of investment would continue, and the fruits are evident in barracks around the country, and particularly in the quality of the equipment with which our armed services serve across the world as we speak.
As a result of that work and commitment which went into the barracks programme, we know that we cannot afford, as a nation, to close any more barracks. There are 18 barracks in operation, which is optimal for a force of 10,000 or so. That number reflects a suitable geographical dispersal highlighting different specialties within the Army. Those specialties are instanced in Mullingar, which is the only artillery barracks left in the country; in Clonmel, which is a vital base for the Reserve Defence Force; and Cavan, which has a state of the art purpose-built barracks, one of the finest of its kind in Europe. It was only opened in 1990, and it is the only new barracks to be commissioned since the foundation of the State.
These three barracks are collectively home to just over 500 soldiers and their families and are worth about €15 million per annum to the three local economies. How will the withdrawal of that spend from these three economies impact on the “public finances” about which the Government proclaims to be so worried in the amendment? The amendment speaks of “unnecessary” fears but there is nothing unnecessary about the fear in these communities this evening. They are afraid because they are hearing from Army management that these barracks are to be closed while getting uncomfortable vibes from the Government Deputies that the barracks are to be closed. Nobody doubts that the Deputies opposite are trying but their efforts are falling on deaf ears. On every occasion in this and the other House, where we have offered the Minister the opportunity to clarify the issue he has not done so. That is why people are afraid this evening. These fears are genuine and should not be dismissed as otherwise.
Tonight is the Minister’s chance to detail in the House his exact plans. I know from his amendment and his form in these occasions that he will not deal with the fears. We will have the usual broken record of blaming this party for everything from the collapse of the economy to stealing the Minister’s sweets when he was a child. I would like him to deal with the following issues.
Where will the savings be made by closing these barracks? He should answer that question in the following context. If we close these barracks he will not be laying off any soldiers and will pay extra travelling allowances to approximately 600 people for up to nine months. He will have to make substantial capital investments in other barracks to accommodate those who are dislocated and discommoded. He will continue to have a very substantial security and maintenance bill for the closed sites. The Minister will be unable to realise any capital from the sale of a barracks or a closed barracks in the current property market and will be unable to do so for some time. Even if he continues the trend of transferring premises to other organisations, as is happening in County Monaghan as part of a deal and project facilitated by our former colleague, former Deputy Margaret Conlon, he will not realise any value for the Department of Defence in the way we realised €85 million to reinvest in the Army. The gain to the Army and the local spend will not be equivalent to what has been taken out of those economies.
How will the defence priorities of the State be served by the closing of barracks? The Minister should await publication of the new White Paper on Defence, on which he is working, before proceeding with further closures. Closing Dún Uí Néill in Cavan will leave only two barracks on the Border. If we need any reminder that we still need maximum security on the Border, the seizures of illicit fuel and the continuing activity of dissident republicans in recent days are that sharp reminder. Closing Columb Barracks in Mullingar will leave us without the last artillery barracks and an important UNIFIL staging post. The closure of Kickham Barracks in Clonmel will be a serious setback to the operations and organisation of the Reserve Defence Force. Proceeding to undermine three of these functions will undermine the integrity of the preparation of the White Paper on Defence.
There is a danger that in debating the physical existence of a barracks and its value to a local economy we will forget the most important element, the people involved. Hundreds of Army personnel do not know where they will be stationed or working in possibly six weeks. They do not know how their working and commuting day will look. They are being told by Government Deputies that they will be given travelling allowances and, depending on the part of the county in which they live, that they might be able to go to Dublin. Some of them are tonight serving with the United Nations in Lebanon and do not know to which barracks they will be returning. Will the Minister be able to tell them next week when he will be over there with them? Their families do not know where their children will be in school this time next year. If they are in separate employment in the towns in which they currently live, they do not know if they will be able to maintain that employment.
As for the communities involved, if 500 jobs in three centres were under threat tonight, there would be topical issue debates on the issue proposed by Members on all sides of the House and Adjournment debates in the Seanad calling for IDA and various other task forces to assist. We can bring clarity to the matter and give assurances to the communities involved. On the basis that there will be no saving, unless the Minister can state otherwise, and in view of the importance of the Army to local communities, as is recognised on all sides of the House, it is of paramount importance that the Minister give some details on the matter.
I started by paying tribute to the Defence Forces. This is not the way to treat them, their families and communities. The Minister is effectively the commander in chief of the Defence Forces. This is not a matter that can be passed off as an operational issue for the military. The Minister retains the power to clarify the position. I urge him to take that chance.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Tááthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an rún seo. San achar gairid go raibh mise mar Aire Cosanta, cuireadh ar mo shúile dom, ní ag an Arm féin ná ag an Roinn ach ag daoine atá san Arm, go raibh i gceist laghdú mór millteanach a dhéanamh ar líon na saighdiúirí atá lonnaithe i nDun Uí Mhaoilíosa i nGaillimh. Tá an Chéad Chath lonnaithe ansin agus b’iad Cumann na nGael a chuir an Chéad Chath ar bun. Go bhfios domsa bhí baint ag Eoin Mac Néill le bunú an Chéad Chath. Bhí scéal ag dul thart go raibh laghdú mór le déanamh ar an gCéad Chath agus go bhfágfaí Arm na hÉireann gan cathlán lán ghaelach. Ag an am, chuir mé go mór in aghaidh sin. Thug mé treoir don Arm, le tacaíocht iomlán an Rialtais, nach ndéanfaí aon laghdú suntasach ar an gCéad Chath, atá lonnaithe ar an Rinn Mhór i nGaillimh, an bheairic is giorra do Ghaeltacht ar bith sa tír.
Tógadh an cinneadh sin agus cuireadh in iúl é don Aire. Ina dhiaidh sin, ar 28 Meitheamh 2011, chuir mé ceist ar an Aire Cosanta, an Teachta Alan Shatter, an raibh an cinneadh sin fós ag seasamh. Dúirt an t-Aire nach raibh, go raibh sé tar éis tarraingt siar as cinneadh an Rialtais, nár sheas cinneadh an Rialtais níos mó go ndéanfaí cosaint ar an gCéad Chathlán Ghaelach san Arm.
Ba mhaith liom a fháil amach ón Aire anocht céard atá i gceist aige a dhéanamh. An bhfuil i gceist aige scrios a dhéanamh ar an gCéad Chathlán Ghaelach agus an bhfuil i gceist aige athrú bunúsach a dhéanamh ar an stádas a bhaineann leis an mbeairic ar an Rinn Mhór i nGaillimh?
Má tharlaíonn sé sin deir sé go leor faoi luachanna an Rialtais agus faoin dearcadh atá aige faoin Arm Éireannach. Nach gceapann an Rialtas go mb’fhiú go mbunófaí, ar a laghad, cathlán amháin a bheadh bunaithe ar mhaithe le deis a thabhairt do shaighdiúiríón nGaeltacht agus do dhaoine eile a bhfuil Gaeilge acu a bheith ina saighdiúiríÉireannacha agus an teanga Gaeilge a úsáid gach uile lá?
I support the motion brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Calleary. I am very concerned about the rumours circulating. It appears to have become a habit of the Government to fly plenty of kites at the same time. Now that this kite has been flown, we hope the Government will listen to the very strong pleas not only from us but also from Government colleagues on the issue of barracks closures. We can agree that the Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose, has put the matter very well in the various statements he has issued. He has made it absolutely clear that he believes it would be wrong to close the barracks in Mullingar. He said the closure of Columb Barracks would be “crass stupidity” and “economic lunacy”. He also said: “I have no intention of supporting stupid decisions.” I am sure the Minister would hate to see a Minister of State go overboard and that he will listen carefully to what he has to say about barracks closures. The Minister of State said: “I cannot believe that a sovereign government would ever contemplate closing such a major and integral part of the Defence Forces’ facilities.” He also pointed out, in support of what Deputy Calleary said, that, “From an economic perspective it is foolhardy to contemplate closing Columb Barracks. Apart from being unable to dispose of it in the current climate, all personnel would have to be paid disturbance money. No money will be saved, therefore.” That is what he said in 2009 and I am sure the Minister will listen carefully to his colleague who sits at the Cabinet table and realise that he was right in his statements about this barracks and that no money would be saved.
There is no comparison between the closure of barracks now and what happened under previous Governments when the considerable amount of money received from the sale of barracks was used to re-arm the Army and provide it with badly needed equipment and better conditions. There comes a point when one has done enough closing and we believe that point has been reached. The Minister believed that point had been reached when he was in opposition also. We believe the number of barracks is at the optimum level. It gives a geographic spread throughout the country which is convenient for both the Reserve Defence Force and the deployment of the Army, if necessary, be it for a weather-related or other emergency. Its services are available.
It is time the Minister told us the truth and outlined exactly what the Government will do on this issue. It is important to remember that he is in absolute control and that in his role as Minister for Defence, he cannot hide behind the argument that operational matters are beyond his control, because absolute responsibility rests with him. The day-to-day command of the Defence Forces rests with the Minister for Defence. I have no doubt the Minister, no more than I when I came into the Department, was briefed that there is no equivalence between being Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister for Defence and, therefore, this is his direct responsibility and he will be answerable to this House for the decisions he and the Government may take.
Tá go leor le plé againn agus le hoibriú amach. Rud amháin atá ag teastáil ná Fórsaí Cosanta atá scaipthe ar fud na tíre, atá ag freastal ar an bpobal agus atá mar chuid den phobal. Níl aon amhras faoi ach gur fhulaing cuid des na bailte atá i gceist anseo go leor de bharr an ghéarchéim eacnamaíochta. Má dúnfar na beairicí ar fud na tíre, mar shampla an bheairic i gCluain Meala, a bhfuil caint ar iad a laghdú go mór, níl aon amhras faoi ach go ndéanfaidh sé an-dochar do eacnamaíocht na mbailtíe sin, bailte nach bhfuil ag tarraingt tionscail nua isteach iontu i láthair na huaire.
Céard a bheidh againn dá bharr? Glacaim leis nach bhfuil i gceist ag an Rialtas aon laghdú mór a dhéanamh ar líon na saighdiúirí san Arm. Mar sin, níl aon sábháilt le déanamh ar an mbealach sin. Níl mórán costais ag baint —€17 milliún — le ríocht na mbeairicí i rith na bliana. Mar sin, níl aon sábháilt ansin. Cá bhfuil an sábhailt nó an buntáiste? Beidh costas ag baint leis. Breathnaigh an scrios a déanfar ar na bailte éagsúla sa Chabhán, i gCluain Meala, ar an Mhuileann Cearr agus ins na bailte éagsúla ar fud na tíre más rud é go ndúnfar na bearicí seo.  Breathnaigh an scrios a déanfar ar theaghlaigh a mbeidh orthu dul agus cónaí in áiteanna eile. Mar mhalairt air sin beidh ar na saighdiúirí go leor taistil a dhéanamh. Cén tairbhe a bheidh ann? An bhfuil aon daonnacht ag baint leis na cinnithe atá an Rialtas ag dul a dhéanamh? An dtógann an Rialtas san áireamh na ceisteanna sin, na hathraithe scoileanna a bheadh i gceist do ghasúir agus an dochar a dhéanfadh sé sin?
Bhí gá le hathraithe san Arm, mar laghdaigh an t-Arm ó 18,000 duine síos go thart ar 10,000 duine. Anois, tá daoine ag éirí as an Arm go luath, ní hé go bhfuil siad á gcur amach as. Ag tógáil sin san áireamh, cén mhaith nó cén buntáiste a bheidh ann má athraítear daoine óáit go háit? Tá mé cinnte go gcuirfear argóintí breátha ar aghaidh go mba cheart comhdhlúthú a dhéanamh agus go bhfuil daoine ann a chreideann go mba cheart go mbeadh an t-Arm i mbunáit nó dhó ar fud na tíre. Creidim féin nach mbeadh sé sin go maith, go mbainfeadh sé an ceangal a bhí ann ariamh le pobail áirthe agus an t-Arm agus go gcuirfeadh séó mhaith é. Feicimid ar fad an chaoi go dtéann daoine isteach san Arm sa cheantar ar as iad. Daoine ó Mhaigh Eo agus Gaillimh atá ins na beairicí sa taobh sin tíre. Daoine ó lár tíre atá lonnaithe in Áth Luain. Daoine ó lár tíre thoir atá lonnaithe ar an Mhuileann Cearr. Tá baint ag teaghlaigh, ag dul i bhfad siar, leis an Arm. Tá sean-aithreacha, aithreacha, máithreacha agus iníonacha istigh san Arm anois, agus ceangal idir na pobail agus an t-Arm. Is rud sláintiúil é sin. Le ró-fhada níor mhothaigh go leor den phobal go raibh aon cheangal acu leis an Arm a bhí i láthair sa tír. Nuair a fuair muid ár saoirse rud amháin ar éirigh linn a dhéanamh ná ceangal breá a bhunú idir ghnáth phobail na tíre agus an t-Arm. Más rud é go mbainfear an t-Arm amach as na pobail agus larnú a dhéanamh air i gcúpla bunáit ar fud na tíre — is cuma cén comhairle a gcuirfear ar an Rialtas — is é an toradh a bheidh air sin ná go mbrisfear an ceangal dlúth atá idir na pobail agus an t-Arm mar atá sé leagtha amach i láthair na huaire. Ocht mbunáit déag atá ag an Arm i láthair na huaire. Úsáideann Cúltaca an Airm cuid des na bunáiteanna sin. Níl údar ar bith nach bhfágfaí na beairicí mar atá siad agus nach bhfágfaí na saighdiúirí mar atá siad ins na beairicí ar fud na tíre.
Ta súil agam gur tháinig an t-Aire isteach sa Dáil anocht, ní le dul ag súgradh leis an bhfón ach chun éisteacht linn. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sé ag éisteacht linn, go bhfuil sé ag tógáil dáiríre an méid atá le rá againn agus, le cúnamh Dé, nach raibh anseo ach scéal scéil. Más fíor é sin agus más rud é go bhfágann an t-Aire na beairicí ar fad ar oscailt ní bheidh éinne níos sásta ná mé féin. Muna ndéanann sé athrú nó laghdú suntasach ar líon na saighdiúirí ins na beairicíéagsúla ní bheidh éinne níos sásta ná mé féin.
Tá sé faoin Aire anois déanamh cinnte, is cuma cén moladh a cuirfear faoina bhráid, go mbreathnóidh sé do leas na tíre, leas an phobail agus leas na bpobal ina bhfuil na beairicí suite. Tá súil agam nach nglacfaidh sé díreach le plean a cuirfear ós a chomhair agus nach ndéarfaidh sé go gcaithfidh sé glacadh leis an bplean os rud é gur cuireadh faoina bhráid é. Is é an t-Aire, ag deireadh an lae. Is é atá i gceannas agus freagrach. Tá daoine ann le comhairle a chur air agus le moltaí a chur faoina bhráid. Tá cuid acu sa Stát Seirbhís agus cuid eile san Arm, ach níl an fhreagracht orthu na cinntí a dhéanamh. Is faoin Aire agus ag an Rialtas amháin atá sé na cinntí a dhéanamh. Tá an t-Aire in ann na cinntí cearta nó na cinntí míchearta a dhéanamh. Fágaimid sin faoi. Bíodh sé cinnte de rud amháin. Más é an cinnedh mícheart a dhéanann an Rialtas beidh go leor le rá ag gnáth phobal na tíre faoi na geallúintí a tugadh agus iad sa bhFreasúra maidir le beairicí Airm.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important motion. I commend my party colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, our justice and defence spokesperson, on putting this very comprehensive motion before the House. It quite rightly affirms and supports the critical role of the Permanent Defence Force throughout our country and in local communities. We note the substantial consolidation of barracks that has occurred over the past number of years.
Deputy Brendan Smith: If Deputy Jerry Buttimer reads the Minister’s amendment to the motion, he will note the progress made with the consolidation of barracks even though Fine Gael people railed against it as usual. That consolidation of barracks has been made possible by the very considerable political progress which has been made on this island.
Deputy Dara Calleary’s motion is in stark contrast to the amendment proposed by the Minister in which he condemns public representatives who represent the views and concerns of their local communities. In the amendment, the Minister is obviously condemning the concerns expressed by some of his Government colleagues, some of whom are in the Chamber. I note the Minister commends the consolidation of barracks which has occurred and which enabled major investment across the infrastructure of our Permanent Defence Force. That programme of rationalisation was effective, realistic and left in place the network of military installations needed in our State.
I understand that traditionally there has been higher recruitment to the Defence Forces from areas where barracks are located. We have a long Army tradition in my county of Cavan, as my constituency colleague, Deputy Joe O’Reilly, will know, and I am very glad to have the opportunity to once again commend the work of members of the Defence Forces throughout the country but, in particular, those members who I personally know and who are stationed in Dún Uí Néill in Cavan. I also commend the work of retired and deceased personnel and take the opportunity to pay tribute to so many of those personnel who, in different decades, served overseas on overseas missions acting as great ambassadors for our country.
Coming from a Border area, one is probably more conscious of the vital role of our Army and particularly the work that was carried out by those personnel in very difficult times during the late 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and in to the early 1990s. The changed circumstances in the north of my province of Ulster enabled the consolidation of barracks. Barracks have been closed in the three southern Ulster counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan but three key military installations, all strategically placed, have been left in place. It was probably in 1987 or 1988 that the Fianna Fáil Government approved the provision of a new barracks in Cavan town and sourced the site on the Dublin Road.
That barracks, subsequently named Dún Uí Néill, replaced an old and inadequate barracks on Barrack Hill in the town. As a result of that major investment during a time of great economic difficulties, soldiers based in Cavan were able to move into the most modern barracks in Europe in 1990. It is the only operational barracks that has been provided by our own State and all of us are proud of the modern facilities it offers. It is run in an efficient manner and provides good value for money. It is the most economical barracks in the country, with running costs of €200,000 per annum when one includes maintenance, utilities, electricity, heating and transport fuels. It is also a major Reserve Defence Forces training centre. Other FCA centres throughout counties Cavan and Leitrim were merged into Dún Uí Néill to provide better training facilities and benefits of scale from the larger numbers involved.
For towns like Cavan, the Army barracks is an integral part of the community and local economy. The recent reports on the Government’s plans to shut this facility have caused great distress not only to the Army and civilian personnel directly affected but also among the wider community. There is no avoiding the fact that the closure of the barracks will cost jobs and hurt local businesses. Some 120 personnel from A company, sixth battalion of the western command are based in Cavan and an additional 22 personnel are currently serving on the United Nations mission in southern Lebanon.
The facilities of the barracks have been made available to the local community and a state-of-the-art gymnasium and other sporting facilities have been used by our county teams and local sports clubs. Senior citizen organisations also regularly use the facilities. The provision of public facilities on a practical basis to local community organisations has been a welcome development. Deputy O’Reilly and I have been invited to the gym on numerous occasions but work has precluded us from attending. It is very ecumenical to invite all sides.
Deputy Brendan Smith: The importance of the Reserve Defence Force is often underestimated. The 6,000 members of the Reserve use several barracks for training purposes, including Dún Uí Néill. The convenient location of barracks is an important part of the recruitment process. In the years commonly referred to as the Troubles, many young people were fortunate to have been recruited to the FCA rather than becoming involved with undesirable organisations. We should not undervalue the training and discipline that was imparted to young people through the FCA.
Last night approximately 500 people attended a public meeting in Cavan to voice their deep concern about the future of our barracks. They recognise that it is a hub of economic activity and are worried about the effect of its closure on their town. The barracks provides both direct and indirect employment by generating a demand for local goods and services. The soldiers and their families are an integral part of the fabric of life in Cavan. The uncertainty which the Minister has allowed to develop is a cause of concern for the local community and, in particular, the personnel based in Dún Uí Néill. Their families outlined to me at the public meeting, my clinics and by telephone their worries regarding relocation of the Cavan personnel and the additional financial burden that would ensue. Deputy O’Reilly and Senator Wilson accompanied me to last night’s meeting and Deputies Heather Humphreys and Conlan were also represented.
The pivotal location of Dún Uí Néill is clear on maps of the Border area. Three barracks are located along our long land Border, namely, Finner Camp in County Donegal in the north west, Dún Uí Néill in the centre and Aiken Barracks in Dundalk on the east coast. It is clear that a barracks is needed in the central Border area.
Apart from the difficulties associated with the Troubles, the Army also worked alongside officials from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Garda and other statutory agencies to limit the spread of foot and mouth disease and BSE. We value the major contribution played by the Army in that national effort. Our security forces ensured the successful implementation of a sophisticated and comprehensive programme that minimised disruption to the agriculture and food sector. Stopping the spread of disease from the neighbouring jurisdiction was of the utmost importance to protect the hard earned and well deserved reputation of our food industry. That reputation is key to our success in exporting food and drink products to 163 countries worldwide.
It is simplistic to say that soldiers can be moved when operational needs arise. That should only be necessary when the work undertaken is short in duration. For longer undertakings accommodation and other facilities are needed. If barracks are closed, which I hope will not happen, where will the relocated soldiers be accommodated? My understanding from speaking to individuals closely associated with the Defence Forces is that alternative accommodation is lacking should the Government proceed with closing the facilities named in the motion. I hope the Minister can assure us there will be no such closures.
Deputy Alan Shatter: I have to begin with an expression of admiration. Courage was always in short supply when it came to taking tough decisions during the wasted years of the Celtic tiger boom. However, there was one area where the Deputies opposite showed a modicum of decisiveness. When in Government, they presided over the closure of no fewer than ten barracks, as Deputy Calleary boasted this evening. Their justification was based on a perfectly logical and reasonable analysis. The consolidation of barracks into a smaller number of locations was a key objective of the previous Government’s White Paper on Defence and recommended in many reports. It remains a key objective of the ongoing defence modernisation programme to maximise the effectiveness of the Defence Forces. I accept the previous Government’s analysis. The facts remain the facts, regardless of who is in government.
Deputy Alan Shatter: As everyone knows, Fianna Fáil led coalitions destroyed the public finances and led our country into receivership. As a result, we have had to undertake a searching reappraisal of every aspect of public expenditure. The legacy we inherited is so dreadful that no area of expenditure can be excluded from review.
Deputy Alan Shatter: The proposers of tonight’s motion know this. They also know that I cannot exclude barracks from this review. I have said so plainly in reply to questions in this House. I have never resorted to any sort of equivocation on the subject. The Exchequer is under extreme pressure and no amount of bluff and bluster will bridge the yawning gap between the Government’s income and current expenditure. Unfortunately, more hard decisions will be needed.
There are few opportunities to trim defence spending without impacting on front-line delivery. It is self-evident that concentrating personnel in fewer locations provides the potential to protect essential collective training and reduce unnecessary overheads in terms of barrack management, administration, maintenance and security. It also affords me, as Minister for Defence, the possibility of maintaining the Defence Forces at their current level of approximately 9,500.
This Government has nothing to apologise for in seeking to effect further efficiencies. To place the glaring inconsistency of the Fianna Fáil motion in perspective, I want to place on the record of the House the previous Government’s record in this regard. In July 1998, the then Government announced the closure of six barracks: Ballincollig, Fermoy, Devoy, Magee, Castleblayney and Clancy, with the relocation of 880 personnel. In the context of the 2009 budget, the then Government also announced the closure of four barracks: Monaghan, Lifford, Longford and Rockhill House, Letterkenny, with the relocation of 595 personnel, and also St. Bricin’s Hospital in Dublin. The closure of the four barracks has been achieved. The consolidation of St. Bricin’s is linked to the provision of modern medical facilities within the existing departmental property portfolio and will take some time to implement.
While the closure of the barracks and the sale of the properties has provided funding for investment, it was never the sole driving factor for the consolidation of defence infrastructure, as the Deputies opposite well know, including the two Deputies who spoke who are former Ministers for Defence. The primary driver for barrack reorganisation and personnel redeployment is the efficient and effective delivery of military capabilities. As I have said in response to many questions in this House, Defence Forces properties are kept under constant review in terms of addressing Defence Forces requirements and ensuring the most appropriate organisation of the Defence Forces, taking account of the operational requirements.
The austerity measures initiated by the previous Government have meant the strength of the Permanent Defence Force has now reduced to 1970s levels and there is an urgent need to maximise efficiency to mitigate the effects of that reduction. Releasing personnel for operational duties requires that the number of barracks be reviewed. If it transpires that significant efficiencies in manpower usage can be gained by reducing the number of barracks, why should this Government use different criteria from its predecessor? The double-think behind this motion verges on the embarrassing. Do the Deputies opposite think the public has developed amnesia so quickly?
Deputy Alan Shatter: The opportunistic motion tabled by Fianna Fáil deserves no credibility coming from the party responsible for the economic cataclysm that has impacted on our people. It starkly confirms that despite that party’s unprecedented defeat in the general election and the passage of time, no lessons of any nature have been learned. All the more perplexing is the party’s failure to acknowledge that previous programmes of barrack rationalisation provided funding that, together with pay savings, provided essential resources required for infrastructure, training area development and equipment procurement.
Since 1998, a total of €84.98 million has been realised from the disposal of six of the barracks closed by Fianna Fáil-led Governments. Agreement in principle has been reached to dispose of two more of these. Notwithstanding the extremely depressed state of the property market, it now appears that the round of barrack closures effected by Fianna Fáil in 2009 will ultimately yield more than €5 million. It is contradictory for Fianna Fáil Deputies to claim the current barrack structure should be maintained given Ireland’s commitment to the United Nations. Mention was made of some members of the Defence Forces in southern Lebanon at present. In practice, nothing could be further from the truth. To support our UN contribution, we must avoid spreading our resources too thinly and starving the Defence Forces of the appropriate investment in equipment and training which will allow them to continue to meet the standards necessary to participate in overseas missions. Let me be quite clear: unless we prioritise the resources available to the Defence Forces into the appropriate areas, we will not be able to send troops overseas in the future because they will not have the appropriate equipment and training. We must do the best we can within the constrained resource envelope available. We cannot have it both ways. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. To try to pretend otherwise, as Deputies on the other side of the House are doing, is misleading and they know that.
The standard of financial analysis underpinning the Opposition motion is depressingly familiar. It is the type of analysis that brought us to the brink of financial disaster. The Exchequer receipts have fallen by approximately a third. What is the Opposition’s prescription? It is to reprimand the Government for daring to think about a measure that some of the Opposition applied widely when in government to effect efficiencies.
Deputy Alan Shatter: The implication of this motion is that we should conduct the comprehensive review of expenditure that is under way on the basis that the taxpayer should continue to invest in something that is not required. Does that make any sense of any nature to anyone?
What I want to achieve in the comprehensive review of expenditure is the concentration of our investment in those areas of the Defence Forces which are important to its operational and overseas capabilities to ensure it is properly equipped and trained and that we do not need to reduce its strength substantially below the current strength of 9,500.
Deputy Alan Shatter: After years of economic gloom, signs of hope are beginning to appear. Motions such as this are a profound disappointment, however, and a reminder that the Deputies opposite still have very little to contribute towards a solution to our very serious economic situation. As other Deputies have done and as I consistently do, I very much commend the work and commitment of our Defence Forces.
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: I commend the Minister on his speech. I listened to Deputy Ó Cuív and I could not believe his remarks both as Gaeilge agus trí Bhéarla. He spoke about flying kites. He was a man who sat at the Cabinet table and who in a ten year period presided over the decline in numbers from 10,726 Army personnel to 9,500. He is a person who was a member of a party that in government presided over the closure of Army barracks. The leader of Fianna Fáil spoke on the opening day of this Dáil of the end to Punch and Judy politics. Six months on, the best we can see——
Those quotes were from a previous Minister for Defence, Michael Smith, a member of the Fianna Fáil Party, a man who sat on the Government benches and who was, along with the Fianna Fáil Party leader, a member of Cabinet who closed a barracks in his own constituency and another one in the Ireland South European Parliament constituency. No one from the Fianna Fáil benches at the time, Deputies Moynihan, O’Keeffe or Martin, voted against the closures.
This is a nakedly political motion. This is what Fianna Fáil said it would change. I compliment Deputy Brendan Smith on the great argument he made as to why we must keep the barracks open, namely, that the Cavan football team can keep training there. That is a very good argument.
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: The Members opposite have shown no concern for Army spouses or families, none whatever. They have shown no plan for the evolution of the Defence Forces, and the Minister is correct.
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: The Government of which Deputy Cowen’s colleagues were members destroyed this country. They took the soul and the heart out of rural and urban Ireland. He may well smile. Today there are men and women in this country who are suffering as a consequence of the cheap politics Fianna Fáil played for 20 years, and he should never forget it. As long as I am in this House, I will never let not only Deputy Cowen, but his party, forget it.
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: This motion condemns an active and progressive Minister for Defence who states that consolidation of Army barracks over the past number of years was acknowledged by Fianna Fáil.
If there was no election in March last, Deputy Calleary knows well he would be coming here with a different motion. Deputy Calleary should change his tune and change his politics and remember that we are talking about communities and about people.
I agree with Deputies Calleary, Ó Cuív and Smith about the fine work that our armed services continue to do in the country. There is huge potential to develop the resource we have throughout the country. As Deputy O’Brien may remember, when Cork flooded a couple of years ago, uniquely, in Ireland, the Army came to the assistance of the civil powers to provide significant relief, particularly on the northside of the city which we represent. This is a difficult period for Army families, but there is a great future for our forces in this country. Personally, I would like to see their role developed, both nationally and internationally.
Over the past 20 years, many reports and commissions have identified barrack closure as a fundamental requirement towards improving military effectiveness and efficiency. If we were to start from scratch, such a small country as ours would never contemplate a position of having 28 barracks, as we had in 1998. Successive Fianna Fáil Governments over the past 12 years have closed ten of these and it is fair to say that these barracks were closed during a time of economic boom.
More noteworthy still is why these barracks will have to be closed, if any are to be closed. The deal entered into by Fianna Fáil with the troika, the people who are lending money to our country, commits us as a people to cost-cutting measures that are today unavoidable. The closure of ten barracks under Fianna Fáil may have been prevented at the time if the Government had so wished. Sadly, this Government does not have such a luxury.
The Minister, Deputy Howlin, has correctly insisted that all Ministers and Departments share the burden of restoring Ireland’s economic independence through prudent managing of the nation’s finance. This prudence is already reaping considerable rewards. In the past two days, for the first time in a long time unemployment figures are falling. These improvements are modest. Nonetheless the light at the end of our economic tunnel that Fianna Fáil extinguished is flickering to life for the people of our country and for our unemployed. For the first time in five years the Irish economy is experiencing growth. It is modest growth, but growth nonetheless.
The ambition of this Government is now very much not only to regain the sovereignty and financial independence that Fianna Fáil removed from this proud nation, but to be the first programme nation in Europe to do so. In fact, from being one of the malignant tumours that threatened to kill the European vision, this country is now being seen as having the leadership, integrity and courage, not only to cure our own problems but to right the prescription for this Continent as a whole. This reality makes the Fianna Fáil Party even sicker. Their delusion that all Governments would be as incompetent and ineffective as their own, has already been proven to be complete nonsense.
Deputy Dara Murphy: We in Fine Gael, at a time when our country needed bipartisan and co-operative Opposition, embarked on the Tallaght strategy to work together in the nation’s interests. Sadly, Fianna Fáil has once again adopted its default approach to politics in Ireland — Fianna Fáil first and to hell with everybody else.
Deputy Joe O’Reilly: I have been in dialogue over the past few weeks with representatives of PDFORRA, with the families involved and with the local community around the Dún Uí Néill in Cavan and as a consequence of that dialogue, I have been in regular consultation with the Minister and his senior officials in bringing the welfare issues and the general concerns of the personnel there to the Minister. As Deputy Smith, my constituency colleague, made reference to, last night I attended and participated in an excellently run, fine public meeting in Cavan. I propose to continue engaging in that dialogue with the personnel and the Minister.
I want to put in context a couple of unavoidable issues that surround this debate. When we agreed to the IMF-EU deal we sold out our economic sovereignty. It is a legacy issue and it happened during the term of the previous Government. That IMF-EU deal makes it mandatory for the State to achieve a budget deficit next year of 8.6% of GDP. That, in practical terms, means — this is contingent on the Exchequer returns in November — that there will be no less than €3.6 billion in cuts in next year’s budget. That further means there must be up to €30 million in cuts in the Department of Defence, and that raises fundamental questions. This is an unavoidable backdrop to the debate. Everything that the Government is doing is predicated on the effort to restore our economic sovereignty, get our people working again and restore the fortunes of our country.
The Minister and the Department are determined to maintain the current strength of the Army, and there is a couple of compelling reasons to do this. We have in excess of 800 personnel serving abroad, and we want to maintain that. We have to deal with unforeseen events, such as storms. My colleague, Deputy Smith, correctly alluded to the role of the Defence Forces in disease eradication. We have to sustain the morale of the Defence Forces. There is a constant need to be ready to assist in the event of disasters or emergencies. For those reasons, the Minister and the Fine Gael Party in government are determined to preserve the strength of the Defence Forces.
My personal hope is that people will be recruited into the Defence Forces over the coming months, if it is necessary to preserve the existing strength of the Defence Forces. I commend that possibility to the Minister in the interests of maintaining the current personnel levels. I will ask him to consider it every time I speak to him.
Fine Gael values the role of the Defence Forces. Our historic commitment to the Defence Forces goes back to the foundation of the State. We will not be found wanting in defence of the Defence Forces and in consolidation of their numbers.
Part of the backdrop to this debate is the fact that senior management personnel in the Army have consistently sought the consolidation of their barracks. That has been recommended in report after report. It is worth repeating that the Deputies opposite closed a plethora of barracks across this country in 1998 and 2009. I will not list the barracks in question because I am facing time constraints.
Deputy Joe O’Reilly: It is worth noting that, as alluded to earlier, significant savings of €85 million have been made on foot of these sales. I emphasise that if any further closures were to take place, the money accruing from them would be used to acquire equipment for the Army.
The final and critical point I would like to make as part of the backdrop to this debate is that in the event of closures, Government Departments would be advised immediately of the availability of these facilities. I have been impressing strongly on the Minister the need for the Government to prioritise the ongoing occupation of these facilities in the interests of restoring economic activity and ensuring local economies are not adversely affected.
Deputy Joe O’Reilly: We have to look at this debate in the context of the background in which it is taking place. We have to recognise that it would not be taking place at all if it were not for the financial legacy the Government inherited. We have to recognise that some of these decisions are being dictated to us under the EU-IMF deal. We should bring honesty and integrity to the debate and recognise the truthful background to it.
Deputy Heather Humphreys: I attended a public meeting in Cavan town last night regarding the possible closure of Dún Uí Néill Barracks. Approximately 500 people were in attendance, which provides an insight into the significant concerns in Cavan town and its environs about the future of the barracks. As someone who has worked in the Cavan area for many years, I fully acknowledge the substantial contribution the Defence Forces have made to Cavan and the entire Border region. My Oireachtas colleagues and I listened carefully to the concerns of those who attended last night’s meeting. As an elected representative of the Cavan-Monaghan constituency, I believe it is important that those concerns are highlighted in the Dáil Chamber this evening.
The location of the barracks in close proximity to the Border means the security situation must be taken into account. There continues to be a threat from dissident activities in Border areas. I want to pay tribute to the members of the Defence Forces who have served in the Border area. They were under threat for many years. They worked in under very difficult circumstances in the Border region, often in fear of losing their lives. The barracks in Cavan represent an ideal location for accommodating troops in the event of the arrival of another agricultural disease like foot and mouth disease or BSE. The Defence Forces previously played an important role in ensuring Ireland maintained its disease-free status.
The potential closure of Dún Uí Néill barracks and the redeployment of troops to various other barracks would lead to social disruption for many families. Young families might have no option other than to move away from Cavan. This would result in hardship for young children if they had to change schools. There are concerns that the barracks in Athlone and Dundalk do not have the necessary accommodation to cater for additional troops. They have been overcrowded since other barracks were closed by the previous Government. It is important to bear in mind that the Defence Forces often carry out duties which go beyond their remit. The Defence Forces stepped in during last year’s extremely inclement weather to ensure nurses and other workers could be brought to Cavan General Hospital.
Deputy Heather Humphreys: The troops based at Dún Uí Néill barracks play a vital role for the local community in this and other respects. Essentially, they are the last port of call in times of crisis. Some 120 troops and a number of civilian workers are based at the barracks. If the barracks were to close, it would result in a major loss to the local economy. It has been pointed out that the loss of trade to local suppliers could further exacerbate unemployment problems in the Cavan area.
Deputy Heather Humphreys: That is okay. I have outlined many of the concerns that have been raised with me and the other Deputies for the area. I strongly believe I would be doing a disservice to the constituents I serve if I were to fail to express their views here. As a Government Deputy, I would like to place on the record that I am extremely disappointed about the possible closure of Dún Uí Néill barracks. However, I recognise that the task of the Government is to make many tough decisions of this nature. The bottom line is that the negligence of the previous Administration has left us with no alternative other than to cut costs. Fianna Fáil has been quick to berate the Government about the potential closure of Army barracks. Its motion “condemns the Minister for Defence’s refusal to rule out the closure of any Army barracks”. It is obvious that some Opposition Deputies have short memories. Fianna Fáil was in power when the decision to close the Army barracks in Monaghan town was taken.
Deputy Heather Humphreys: I understand that cost savings must be found. No Government Department is exempt from the imposition of cost-cutting measures. The Department of Defence is no different. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, has an unenviable task in seeking to do his utmost to retain the strength of the Defence Forces at its current level with limited resources at his disposal. I ask him to take account of the concerns I have raised in relation to this matter and examine every possible alternative before a final decision is reached.
Deputy Seán Conlan: Nobody likes the idea of closing military barracks that have existed in Irish towns for centuries, in many cases. The reality is that we are not living in normal times. I am sure the Minister would not consider doing this if it were not absolutely necessary. The Government has been charged with turning around the legacy of the previous Government, which left us in an economic mess. I do not need to remind the House that the eyes of the EU and IMF are on us constantly. Whether we like it or not, we need to make difficult decisions if the savings needed to get us out of the economic hole in which we find ourselves are to be made. We have a stark choice between rationalising our Army barracks infrastructure and reducing the number of soldiers in the Defence Forces.
Deputy Seán Conlan: The option of barracks closures, which is being discussed this evening, may or may not happen. If it does happen, at least Defence Forces personnel can be assured that they will be redeployed, unlike the private sector workers who have to find alternative employment when they lose their jobs. That is the stark reality of the situation. I note from the Minister’s comments that any plan in this regard will be based on the previous Government’s White Paper on Defence. I am sure it will be discussed with the heads of the Army and the other branches of the Defence Forces. They will make a rational decision about the operational capacity of the Army, and where best to locate Army barracks, on the basis of best practice. I am concerned about the possibility of a barracks being closed in the Border region. The Defence Forces did a sterling job along the Border to protect this country during the Troubles. I pay tribute to everybody in our Defence Forces.
Deputy Jonathan O’Brien: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. At this time, it would be a retrograde step to contemplate further closures of barracks in towns that are already suffering from intense distress brought on by rising unemployment and emigration. This is not the time to compound that suffering with closures which to all intents and purposes are the equivalent of closing medium sized factories.
Before addressing the motion, I wish to point out a technical issue. The Fianna Fáil motion refers to Defence Forces barracks across Ireland and calls on the Minister for Defence not to close any further barracks. There are a number of barracks in the north east which I would not mind having closed but I do not believe even the Minister has the power to close them. He might work on that. We have been campaigning for years to have some of them closed in the Six Counties, which is part of Ireland, believe it or not, as it consists of all Thirty-two Counties, not Twenty-six Counties and certainly not Twenty-two. That aside, we welcome the spirit of the motion, which we will support.
Sinn Féin is opposed to any further closure or consolidation of Defence Forces barracks and any possible further reduction in personnel at this time. The closure of these barracks would lead to a greater property portfolio for the State, which I am sure the Troika would be more than happy to see. Given the distressed state of the market, however, we would be unable to sell any of this property and, even if we did, we would certainly not get value for money.
I have already alluded to the detrimental consequences of removing Defence Forces personnel and their families from some of the areas referred to in the motion. The vast majority of these personnel are an important and integral part of the local community as well as serving in the Defence Forces. They and their families contribute millions of euro to the local economy each year and any closure or further consolidation would depress those local economies which are already suffering from this Government’s failure to create jobs.
The Defence Forces are a vital component of our emergency services, as was shown by their expert work during the recent weather conditions. As Deputy Dara Murphy, my colleague in Cork North-Central, pointed out, during the recent flooding of Cork the Defence Forces came to the fore and the skill and expertise with which they handled that issue and the way they interacted with local communities was to be welcomed. For that type of reason, it is an advantage to have a spread of such expertise throughout the State, in particular given the changing weather conditions and the possibility of further floods.
While the Government stated that no decision has been made in regard to future closures or consolidation, everyone knows it is on the agenda and is being actively considered. The Minister himself has repeatedly refused to rule out closures or further consolidation, although that is not a criticism as I would much prefer a Minister to at least say something is either in or out rather than say one thing and then do another, as previous Governments have done.
As the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, is present, I note he recently said in regard to Columb Barracks in Mullingar that the dispersal of Defence Forces personnel over an extended number of locations continues to be a major impediment to essential collective training and the releasing of personnel for operational duties. I have not seen any evidence to support this assertion. If it exists, I ask the Minister of State or the Minister for Defence to furnish me with the information so we can make an informed decision when this matter comes before the House.
Given the statement from the Minister earlier and the statements of some other Deputies, there is no doubt there is disquiet on all sides on this issue. It is time clarity was brought to the matter. A review of public expenditure is under way, which I am sure will form some basis in regard to reaching a decision. However, it is important the Minister makes a decision on this issue as soon as possible to provide clarity for those families.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Nuair a d’fhéach mé ar an rún seo ar dtús, cheap mé go raibh duine éigin ag magadh, ní díreach sa rún ach sa leasúón Rialtas. Is ceap magaidh sinn má leanfaimid leis an sórt seo polaitíochta. Ní ró-fhada ó shin a bhí Rialtas Fhianna Fáil agus an Chomhaontais Ghlais ag déanamh an rud ceannann céanna atá siad ag cáineadh inniu ar Rialtas nua Fhine Gael agus Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre. Is ait go bhfuil an Rialtas nua tar éis polasaí an sean-Rialtais a thógáil go huile is go hiomlán.
I thought it was a joke that this motion was before us at all. The arguments contained within the Fianna Fáil motion are the exact arguments I put to Deputy — or Corporal — Willie O’Dea when he was on the other side of the House, when he and his Government implemented a policy of closing down barracks the length and breadth of this country — of this State, in fact.
At the time, the reason the Government did this was to sell off property to the highest bidder. There was no benefit to local communities. The Government would not even grant the local authorities the land to ensure they could use it for social housing purposes. Instead, it sold it to them at a huge profit or, as in the case of Clancy Barracks in this city, it made local authorities bid against a private concern, as happened up and down the country. This is something I do not want any future Government to repeat. If the Government is contemplating closing down the barracks listed in the motion, I want an assurance that it will not sell off this land and will instead transfer it to the local authorities or organisations such as the IDA to use for proper purposes, rather than making a profit on the back of it.
If anyone goes to Clancy Barracks in my constituency, they will find it is sitting under the umbrella of NAMA because one of the big developers, P. Elliott, has collapsed and is in receivership. Most of the apartments are half built and sitting empty, and even those that are completed are sitting empty while half the site is derelict. At the time, we had asked that this land be transferred to Dublin City Council in order to redevelop the area, but it did not happen. Shame on the last Government and shame on this Government if it is contemplating doing exactly what the last Government intended to do, which is to close the barracks listed in the motion. I remember not long ago a campaign to try to prevent the closures in Cavan, Mullingar and other areas which are listed here. The new Government has just taken the clothes from the previous Fianna Fáil Government. Shame on it.
The Government amendment should give a commitment that none of this land or property will be used in any way that is detrimental to social good, and that it would be transferred to local authorities, which in many cases are in need of land to redevelop towns, for future social housing use or for social facilities such as sports facilities. In the main, however, most of these barracks should not be closed and sold off in any shape or form.
The fact this is even being contemplated, and the fact the strength and location of the Defence Forces is being dictated to us, in this State, by the IMF, proves the truth of what we said about both the Nice treaty and the Lisbon treaty, namely, that in the future our neutrality will be gone and the strength of our Defence Forces will be dictated by external forces. This is again proven here. It is even written in the Government amendment, because that ties each decision pertaining to the neutrality of this State and to what one of its backbenchers called the armed forces, that is, the Defence Forces, to dictation by an outside force, namely, the IMF and the European Union in this case. I appeal to the Government to withdraw its amendment and to support the motion tabled by Fianna Fáil, even though it is disgraceful the latter party tabled it without any hint of the embarrassment it should have, given its previous history in respect of barracks closures.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I will focus on the threatened barracks closure in my constituency and I appeal to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to support the retention of Dún Uí Néill Barracks in Cavan, as well as its full complement of serving soldiers and civilian employees. I believe Cavan to be an important location for the Defence Forces, allowing speedy response to any given situation arising right across the counties of Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan. On foot of the closure of the Monaghan barracks and the earlier closures of Cootehill and Castleblayney, Dún Uí Néill became home to many of those displaced members. That they and their families would be obliged to face further displacement with all that entails, including housing mortgage renegotiations in the most difficult of times across this sector and resecuring the education needs of their children, is grossly unfair and may force some to leave. Is the dole queue their only future? Surely this is not the objective.
Built in 1990, Dún Uí Néill is a purpose-built Irish Defence Forces barracks, not a vacated facility from another century. I understand it is a fine facility that meets the needs of its complement of 150 serving soldiers and ten civilian staff. For the wives and partners of those currently serving in Lebanon, of whom I am informed 22 are members attached to Dún Uí Néill, this period of great uncertainty is doubly difficult. A new communications mast was installed in 2010, but at what cost? What real financial gains were made from the earlier barracks closures in counties Monaghan and Donegal and elsewhere? What are the prospects of getting a worthwhile return from such properties and sites in these straitened economic times? What cost would be incurred if, God forbid, another farm related outbreak occurred north of the Border and it was necessary to deploy soldiers? Where would they be billeted? A local GP is medical officer at Dún Uí Néill. This is an important relationship and is one that would not be quickly re-established elsewhere. Moreover, the Reserve Defence Force unit in Cavan also is based at Dún Uí Néill. What would be the cost of alternative premises or does the Minister propose its disbandment, severing finally a close and honoured relationship between the town and county of Cavan and the Defence Forces? I have spoken to some family members of serving members attached to Dún Uí Néill who describe the atmosphere in their homes today as being akin to wake houses. This is a dreadful position in which to place these families. If Dún Uí Néill is to close, the financial advantages are far from clear. This is the most economical barracks in the State and, if vacated, it would require expensive security until its future was determined. Light and heat certainly would be a factor as the buildings surely would not be allowed to decline through the absence of heat in the ravages of our far from idyllic climate.
The real pain, of course, will be borne by the serving soldiers, their wives and partners and especially by their children. What will a serving member who is already in negative equity do? How will he or she cope with a crippling debt to a bank or building society following the sale of his or her home? How will such a member ever again hope to enter into home ownership? No loans are being given out and certainly not to low to middle income earners who are already burdened by a carry-on debt. Credit unions are working under even greater restrictions than previously and will be unable to step into the breach and meet the borrowing needs of dozens of displaced soldiers and their families. Will the Department of Defence and the Exchequer bail out these men and women and their families? What will be the loss to the economy of Cavan town and county? It is estimated that a sum of approximately €3 million per annum, comprising wages spent and supplies secured across the Breifne county, will be taken out of circulation. This will have a knock-on effect with more jobs lost, especially in the retail and services sectors.
The serving soldiers attached to Dún Uí Néill have made an important contribution to the State, the county of Cavan and the wider region. They have given service to individuals and whole communities struggling to deal with a variety of challenges. They have helped to keep the emergency services in action in the worst of weather conditions, with last winter being a particular example when they presented day and night to assist with all needs. I urge the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to visit Dún Uí Néill in the days ahead. Nothing will impress on him more the importance of retaining Dún Uí Néill as a vibrant Defence Forces barracks than his own first-hand observation and experience, and I have no doubt that he would receive a warm welcome at this, one of only two surviving Ulster-based Defence Forces facilities. I urge the Minister to so act.
Deputy Seamus Healy: I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this motion, particularly because it refers to Kickham Barracks, Clonmel, a barracks with which I obviously am very familiar. Looking across at the Labour Party benches, I note not a single Labour Party member is present in the Chamber. Regardless of their presence or otherwise, I remind Labour Party Ministers and Members that the Labour Party was founded in May 1912 in the town hall in Clonmel. A Labour Party Minister of State already proposes to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of that party in Clonmel with the closure of the town’s acute psychiatric unit. Does the Labour Party in government now propose to celebrate that 100th anniversary by desecrating the names of Connolly and Larkin through the closure of Kickham Barracks, Clonmel, a barracks and a tradition that has been in the town since 1650? If Kickham Barracks has been closed by the time the Labour Party comes to celebrate its 100th anniversary in Clonmel next year, its members will get a very cold reception in the town, or perhaps it will be very hot. The Labour Party members in south Tipperary, as well as Labour Party Oireachtas Members and MEPs, should ensure Kickham Barracks, Clonmel is retained. They owe this to the people of Clonmel and south Tipperary.
The final point in the Government amendment to the motion states it “condemns mischievous attempts to exaggerate the impact of these necessary decisions and create unnecessary fears among local communities”. That is choice, after a Minister of State talked of the closure of Mullingar barracks being crass stupidity and after a Government backbencher referred to the gloves being taken off. The closure of barracks in the country, in Clonmel in particular, would be a huge blow to soldiers and their families. It would be a huge blow to the town of Clonmel, as €4 million to €5 million per annum would be taken out of its local economy. It has been suggested there would be no job losses as a result of such closures. If one takes €4 million or €5 million out of the economy of Clonmel or any other town, be it Mullingar or Cavan or elsewhere, job losses will result. One cannot take such a sum out of a town’s economy without experiencing job losses.
Members have heard many times in this debate that this is the fault of the previous Government. Perhaps that is the case but the present Government was elected on the basis that it would change all that. The Government parties made election promises and commitments to the people that what went on during the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government would change. It also has been suggested that these measures must be taken to achieve savings.
While someone on the Government benches mentioned patriotism, I have stated in this Chamber previously and reiterate now that it is time for some patriotism from the very wealthy people of Ireland. I note that 5% of the wealthy people in this country own €250 billion in assets but do not pay a ha’penny in wealth tax. Many European countries have a wealth tax and there has been debate in this regard in France recently. Moreover, some states in the United States also have a wealth tax. Why should Ireland not have a wealth tax to oblige those with huge incomes and who have huge assets pay their fair share?
Deputy Seamus Healy: ——this austerity and such closures and job losses would not be visited on ordinary people, that is, on middle income and low income families who are already being devastated by the huge cutbacks and the taxes the Government intends to introduce in the next budget.
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